This guest post is first in a series called When Christmas is Hard, which explores the unique challenges and heartaches of the holiday season.
They say the firsts are the hardest. First birthday, first gathering, first Christmas. They say the first time you pass the milestones that mark our days without them it stings the most, hurts the deepest.
When her sinus headaches kept intensifying and she went to the ER and they rushed her up to Stanford I dropped to my knees to pray and then to pack up my giant red suitcase and go. We lived three states away and I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I needed to be near her.
Over the next 22 months I was with her as much as I could be while pregnant and then after giving birth, and then lugging around three small children. We would pack that giant red suitcase over and over and the best man I know said goodbye to me and his children for indeterminate amounts of time; sometimes weeks, sometimes months.
Our last Christmas together, when people complained about traveling or logistics I was just grateful for one more memory of her unpacking ornaments, her mistaken lyrics (even to Jingle Bells), tags with “From Mom” on them. On the 20 hour drive down with the kids, presents packed in the trunk, Bing Crosby on the radio, I remembered our looming future and tried to shake it further off.
Remembering her as I knew her
My mother died, but I want you to meet her as I knew her, not as I lost her. She had bright blonde hair she earned on a kitchen stool with my Gramma every several weeks while I grew up. She left pink lipstick on my coffee mugs which complemented the green-blue eyes she gave my daughter.
Her bangles clinked together when she moved her arms around to some silly gesture for a laugh or when she stroked my hair because I was scared. She did this scoff thing at me all the time that always felt like a prize I’d won, even over FaceTime where we met almost daily while she nannied and I mommied and we swapped the old and new wisdoms we needed for the moment.
They say it’s hard, but they don’t tell you why – probably because it varies. Sometimes it’s the things unsaid, the regrets, the apologies you never got. But sometimes it hurts because it feels like love ruined you; rooted down deep and spread out so that honest attempts at cynicism crumble before the mortar can dry.
Nobody who has lost a loved one to GBM will say it went easy, but we were grateful for the time we had. She stayed as long as she possibly could, I don’t doubt that for a second. She exhausted every moment in which we were together and when she left it was against her will, but not against her peace. It was a Good Death if such a thing can be said.
The first Christmas without her
Six months later we drove down the familiar highways while Bing Crosby crooned. We arrived at the house I grew up hearing her voice down the hall in, the one we nursed and lost her in, too. I slept in the room where she died, where I’d laid next to her while we watched Gilmore Girls and snuck Oreos close to midnight.
The first holiday without her wasn’t easy, but the real trouble is that there was a second, a third, that there will be a twentieth. That time spreads out in front of you empty of this vital presence and every year confirms it. I’ll never hear her scoff at me again, never dig into Gramma’s pantry together like thieves, never smell coconut mixed with her skin.
That first Christmas – and every Christmas since – we unpack the ornaments and I miss her. Christmases are hard now. They just are. But the reason it hurts is the same reason I smile to myself when I hear Jingle Bells and am overwhelmed with gratitude for time with my own children. I don’t have her here the way I wish I did, but her love is still a gift, even without a label.
Krysann is a former fundamentalist turned freedom chaser with an obnoxiously stubborn faith. She lives in Washington state with her husband and four children.